In 1957, when he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, Jim Parker was one ofthe country's most sought-after football players. He lived up to the hype,earning All-Pro honors eight consecutive seasons and getting inducted into thePro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He was on the 1958 team that brought the Colts what was then the league'smost-coveted prize: the NFL championship.
At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, he was agile for a big guy.
But just as the Liberty-Garrison neighborhood where he ran a liquor storefor 35 years has lost some of its vitality, so has the man nicknamed "Unitas'Protector" for the pass protection he provided quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Today, Parker, 65, takes several seconds to rise from a chair. He isdiabetic. He has had at least one stroke. And he uses the blue wheelchair infront of his Columbia home to travel to the steps at the edge of his driveway.He closed his liquor store two weeks ago, but instead of relaxing, hestruggles with do's and don'ts.
Although he's not supposed to smoke, he seemed happiest during a recentinterview when he lighted his pipe.
Drinking also is taboo. He insists the Hennessey, Smirnoff and otherspirits at the bar in his home are for friends. Yet, after pausing for amoment, Parker acknowledges drinking a 22-ounce Heineken "every now and then."
His favorite food is ribs, and although doctors forbid him from eatingthem, he acknowledges devouring some once a week, much the way he brags abouthow he used to eat up Deacon Jones, one of his toughest opponents.
Long removed from the game but not the glory, he fondly recalls the battlesthat made him a household name.
As he prepared to leave the game, he worked briefly for a liquordistributor and had such success his boss helped him buy his business in 1964when the neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore was thriving.
Predominantly Jewish in the 1950s, the neighborhood boasted a Union TrustCo., Silber's Bakery, Shure's Pharmacy and The Forest Theater, among otherbusinesses.
But as has been evidenced in many areas of Baltimore, the population waspushed to the suburbs by encroaching crime and drugs, and businesses began tofade.
So did Parker's health, forcing him into retirement.
'He gets evasive'
His children are glad he gave up the store, as is Colts great Lenny Moore.Moore said it wasn't hard to recognize during phone calls and visits last yearthat something was wrong with his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer.
"He looked kind of out of it," Moore said. "I'd say, 'Hey, man, what'swrong with you?' Then he'd say 'Oh, I'm all right.'"
Moore knew Parker was being macho. After all, Parker had played football inthe '50s and '60s, when the game had no official disabled player lists.
"I know he gets evasive," Moore said. "With Parker, he may just saysomething to get you off the subject. I know him. That's why I know exactlywhat to say and how to say it."
Moore talked to Parker's son, David. Then, without giving their father achance to brush them off, 11 of his 12 children showed up at the store one daylast year and drove him to a hospital.
Doctors told Parker he had recently suffered a stroke and needed to take iteasy. He was released after three months and returned to the store that hadbecome his life. But he knew he had to get out of the business.
Plans have been under way for several months to close about a dozenbusinesses on Liberty Heights Avenue. A Walgreens will replace thosebusinesses, which include a laundromat, pizza parlor and hardware store. Thecorner where Parker's business sits will be converted to parking spaces, saidLeRoy Adams, director of the business assistance group with the HousingAuthority of Baltimore City.
Walgreens is a sign that the neighborhood is on the mend, Adams said.
"We have to try to form a functional business association, one whichactively advocates for the small businesses that are in the district," Adamssaid yesterday. He added that officials are trying to determine the best usefor an abandoned fire station across the street from Parker's business.
With Walgreens coming, some of the displaced businesses are moving to otherlocations. But Parker is out altogether.
None of his children or grandchildren wanted to carry on the business.
And Parker, although stubborn at times, has accepted his limitations.
"When I came back from the hospital last year, it was real hard," Parkersaid. "Getting in and out of the truck was hard. Waiting on the people behindthe counter was tiring me out. I didn't get up and wait on them. I asked themto come behind the counter and get what they wanted and they'd bring it overto me and I'd ring it up. Most of them had gotten used to doing that. I justdidn't feel up to it."
Instead of getting up at 6 a.m. to shower, dress and rush to the liquorstore for a 14-hour workday, Parker sleeps until 10 a.m., a luxury. And hetries to work out for at least 30 minutes a day.
"I just ride the bicycle, and I do arm presses and neck presses," he said.
In Baltimore, sports fans haven't let go of their beloved Colts, now inIndianapolis, though the city has the Ravens. Likewise, Parker can't seem toget the liquor store out of his system.
He went to the store yesterday to wait on the last of the trucks that arecoming to haul away his liquor. And he sat outside the store in his JeepCherokee for several minutes before realizing the men aren't due there untiltoday.
But he didn't sit there in vain.
"I was down there [yesterday] morning, and I bet you 200 people came overto the truck and told me they were going to miss me and they hated to see mego," he said.